Earlier this month NetEase user @YouyouXishuoDianying wrote an essay expressing concern over personal privacy in the age of big data. The essay outlines an experience with targeted corporate advertisement on WeChat, and joins earlier content translated by CDT representing growing public concern over data surveillance and the erosion of personal privacy. Update October 22, 2020 22:24 PDT: A trusted source has notified CDT editors that it is technically impossible for WeChat to monitor all audio and video. As such, this translation stands as a representation of growing public concerns over privacy in China.
Enough With Your Eavesdropping, WeChat
I have something to tell you today that is absolutely infuriating. This post may get harmonized, but I have to get this off my chest.
It begins with a conversation I was having with two friends on National Day.
We had arranged to meet at the office for tea on October 4. At first we talked mostly about work, chatting idly as friends do. All of a sudden, one friend said they wanted to buy a car and asked for our recommendations. I said to look at the Honda Breeze (because I’d gone with a friend to look at it at an auto shop last year), and to check out the big auto shows going on during the holiday. (P.S. This is not an ad. It’s just to give you the facts. I don’t actually know anything about this car, and wouldn’t even notice it on the street. I’ll get to the point below.)
We’re all in software development and we don’t know much about cars, so we quickly switched to another topic. A bit later, we all pulled out our phones and kept talking on and off.
“Speak of the devil!” my friend suddenly shouted. They’d been scrolling through their WeChat feed, and there was an ad for the Breeze (the car). We didn’t think anything of it at first. Then my other friend checked WeChat and saw the same ad. Now we were onto something. I picked up my phone from the table and hurriedly opened WeChat. I scrolled and there it was, as expected: the ad!
We were dumbstruck. WeChat had been monitoring our conversation, no doubt about it. Either it had been tracking our conversation, or was eavesdropping on us right now. I can’t think of any other possibility.
You may ask if we had posted this information on WeChat before and WeChat just saved it, but I’m telling you that isn’t it at all. We’re all in tech, we know more than the average person about this. I can confirm that from the time I purchased my phone to the present, I have never searched for or posted anything related to the “Breeze” in WeChat or any other app.
My two friends said the same. This was the first they had ever heard of this car.
The three of us seeing the exact same ad at the exact same time was clearly because we had just been talking about that car.
This is the key: why did we all get this ad at the same time? Never mind about big data and targeted ads. If WeChat closed its eyes, would it have known we wanted to look at cars? Would it know we wanted to look at this car? Why didn’t it push other products on us? Why didn’t it show us other cars? Why did it push the ad at the same time? There’s a surplus of evidence.
I rushed to a colleague in the next room (who’s the same age as me) and asked for their phone, but the ad didn’t show up in their WeChat feed. Why? There is only one answer: my colleague hadn’t heard what we had been talking about. This eliminates location- and aged-based targeting.
These days practically every web-enabled phone has WeChat pre-installed. And it does make things easier. It lets us talk to far-flung relatives and friends as if we were right there with them. There’s no denying that. But you must understand that every message we send, every photo and video we post, all go through this platform, and that’s where WeChat has the opportunity to steal our information.
WeChat always says emphatically that it will protect user privacy, that all of the user’s information is stored in the cloud and that no one will see it, except for the purpose of specific requests to gather evidence (such as in cooperation with Public Security). But big data inevitably uses this information to construct portraits of hundreds of millions of users, then markets to them for profit. Is that not using our data? Lately they’ve gotten even more bombastic and savage, more twisted and shameless. They’ve bugged users’ everyday conversations.
Presumably people know that WeChat usually starts up pretty quickly. Except for when we first turn our phones on and launch the app, most of the time you just click the icon and are in the world of WeChat in practically an instant. That’s because when we quit WeChat, we haven’t totally quit. It’s still running in the background. Therein lies the question. Whether or not we’ve turned on our phones, we won’t let a single message slip by, but it’s eavesdropping on us just the same.
Maybe people aren’t aware of this horror. Think about how you have your phone on you all day, every day. No matter where you go or what you do, as long as you haven’t turned your phone off, WeChat is listening to every word that you and the people you talk to say. Isn’t that terrifying? Especially for people like myself, who never turn their phone off unless it’s running out of battery, it’s essentially a 24-hour monitor. Just imagine, when you and your partner are talking about top-secret information, the phone in your pocket is listening; when you and your lover are locked in embrace, there are two little listening devices by your side. It’s too beautiful for me to dare to imagine.
Scenes like these are playing out every day.
If you’ve read to this point, I bet you’re furious. Maybe you can accept WeChat monitoring your conversations, but listening in on every word in your life?
I don’t know if you’ve heard the saying that in the era of the internet, everyone is “naked.” This is not a joke, and it’s not an exaggeration. WeChat’s bald-faced eavesdropping is a case in point. Don’t go thinking this is a private zone. There is nothing private about the online you.
May I ask, this swearing by our privacy on the one hand and listening to our every word on the other, is this the secure communication platform you built? There really is nothing you wouldn’t do to make a profit. Keep it up, and no one will dare use WeChat.
Translation by Anne Henochowicz.